Can Qatar Navigate Fraught Hostage Negotiations with Hamas?
This commentary was originally published in The Hill on November 16, 2023.
Just days after the horrific October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks and hostage-taking in Israel, I was asked on CNN if there was any hope for recovering Hamas-held hostages. My response was one of cautious optimism.
First, my sanguine perspectives are bolstered by my confidence in Israeli military and intelligence capabilities, notwithstanding their obvious failures to prevent the October 7 attacks. Second, my views are buoyed by reflections of having participated in a three-day bilateral Qatar-U.S. hostage recovery exercise in July. Importantly, I learned that the Qataris exercise a great deal of patience and have an innate sense of how to mediate and negotiate.
During the Doha exercise, the Qatar Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, the State Security Agency and the Internal Security Force (Lekhwiya) actively and enthusiastically participated in the July workshop along with representatives of the Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Besides the intense learning and collaboration, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Ambassador Roger Carstens, noted the value of building partnerships and trust. And despite a recent Qatar-mediated dealin freeing five wrongfully detained Americans in Iran, few could have predicted that Qatar would be so central to hostage negotiations with Hamas for Israelis and other foreign nationals in the current crisis.
That hostage exercise scenario also drove the kind of discussions and interplay that illuminated the tradeoffs and natural friction points with Qatar officials wanting time to negotiate, while U.S. role players sought to accelerate hostage rescue options, and simultaneously execute counterterrorism operations. Those dynamics are revelatory in contextualizing likely real-world tensions playing out on the ground in Gaza.
Conducting counterterrorism operations and developing the intelligence picture on hostage locations for potential hostage rescue operations are two sides of the same coin, and not at all incongruent with parallel diplomatic negotiations happening while military operations are taking place. Though the U.S. Department of State has the lead on diplomacy, it’s the Hostage Response Group at the White House that coordinates U.S. hostage response and is run by the senior White House counterterrorism director at the National Security Council.
So, along with U.S. hostage enterprise stakeholders in the interagency, policymakers have learned that terrorist hostage-taking is best handled by those also responsible for coordinating counterterrorism options for the president. Suffice it to say, the salutary lesson of years of jihadi and Taliban hostage-taking is that all tools should be on the table and must be considered for hostage resolution: diplomatic, military, courtroom justice and sanctions.
Indeed, Qatar exerts its influence and plays an outsized role on the global stage by maintaining relations with a wide range of actors. That’s why the heads of the Mossad and CIA reportedly visited Qatar in the past days and met with senior Qatari officials to discuss their efforts in trying to secure the release of hostages being held in Gaza.
Still, time is a critical factor. Though Qatar officials are patient, Israeli combat operations and civilian casualties in Gaza are going to make any hostage negotiations far more difficult in the days ahead and may trigger retaliatory terrorist attacks elsewhere against Israeli interests.
Worryingly, Hamas’s terrorism in Israel has opened a “Pandora’s box” for unifying a coalition against Israel, which means that there’s still a potential for a broader regional war. Israel must therefore navigate this unparalleled hostage crisis with the possibility of escalation by Hezbollah, Houthis and other Iranian-backed proxies.
This is all playing out while the Israeli Defense Forces presses its second phase of military operations in Gaza. The military ground operations against Hamas in Gaza demand special operations raids, as well as grinding block-by-block fighting and subterranean clearing of tunnels in search of terrorists, while also looking for hostages. The recent hostage rescue of an Israeli soldier was promising and demonstrates “proof” that Israel can rescue hostages held by Hamas and other terror groups in this complex operational environment.
Understandably, passions are running high as a result of Qatar still hosting Hamas political leadership. But rather than shutting down a crucial channel for recovering hostages, the United States and Qatar have prudently acknowledged the need to revisit an apparent agreement to reassess Qatar’s ties to Hamas after the Gaza hostage crisis is resolved. For what it’s worth, I believe that is smart diplomacy.
Lastly, not too long after Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War, the Israeli Army took me to the Hezbollah kidnapping site of two Israeli soldiers on Israel’s border with Lebanon. Hezbollah’s raid and hostage-taking triggered a punishing 34-day war. With over 240 hostages believed to be held hostage by Hamas, this current crisis foreshadows a much longer war on the horizon.
So, as objectionable as diplomacy might be for some detractors right now, all instruments of Israel’s national power should be considered for dealing with this crisis, including mediation.
Christopher P. Costa is the executive director of the International Spy Museum and an adjunct associate professor with Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is a former career intelligence officer and was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.